Archive for Spanish Civil War

The Milagro of the Mexican Suitcase

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2009 by Liz Hager


Robert Capa’s “Mexican” Suitcase.  photo © Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Gerda Taro, Air Raid Victim in the Morgue, Valencia, 1937.

Randy Kennedy’s article today in the NY Times was a reminder that life is an unpredictable, yet often miraculous, affair.

Against all rightful odds, some 3,500 negatives, shot by war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) and packed inside a flimsy cardboard boxes, survived a a cloak-and-dagger wartime journey. The suitcase of boxes passed through many hands in at least three countries and eventually landed in the possession of a Mexican general.  Sometime in the mid-90s Mexico City filmmaker Benjamin Tarver happened to see exhibit of Spanish Civil War pictures and connected them to the contents of the suitcase he had inherited from his aunt (depending on which account is accurate, either the widow or a close friend of the General). Tarver then wrote to a Queens College (CUNY) professor, an expert on the Spanish Civil War, to ask whether the college could help him catalog and exhibit the prints. The professor in turn contacted the curators at the International Center of Photography. After some years of negotiation with Tarver, ICP was able to retrieve the suitcase, which arrived on its doorstep last year. Miraculously the negatives were in good shape.

Curators at ICP are already heralding the contents of the suitcase as the “holy grail” of Capa’s oeuvre. Almost all the film is of the Spanish Civil War, shot in the years between May 1936 and Spring 1939. It represents an unprecedented cache of Capa’s reporting of that war, thousands of photographs that were previously thought lost forever. The images will add immeasurably to our understanding of both the war and this photographer’s unique talent. Further, over time even known Capa negatives and records have been separated and dispersed over many locations (or lost altogether), so the pictures in the suitcase should help scholars to add more accurate dates and notations to photographs already out there.

More astounding, the suitcase has yielded new photographs of Chim battle scenes, a genre for which the photographer was not previously known.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Soldier, Córdoba Front, Spain,” 1936.

The biggest miracle of the suitcase, however, might prove be the trove of shots credited to Gerda Taro. Why? Scholars have long known that Taro published her pictures under the Capa name, but it has been nearly impossible to determine true attribution of the body of collaborative work for which Capa has received most of the credit. Until recently, Taro was best-known in the public eye for her romance with Capa. The negatives in the suitcase could change that.

Capa’s enormous success as a war photographer (he went on to photograph WW2, the second Sino-Japanese War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflic and the French action in Indochina) overshadows the nature of the collaboration between Capa and Taro during the Spanish Civil War.  It’s all too easy to forget Taro’s place in history:  she was the first woman to report on war from the front lines and a pioneer in establishing the now standard-method of shooting war from within its ranks. Unlike previous photographers, Roger Fenton for example, who typically positioned themselves on the sidelines and reported on the preparations or aftermath of battle, Capa and Taro jumped right into the action. They were passionate about the Republican cause and lived, marched, and went into battle with the troops.  At the time, Taro’s photos were published widely by the French leftist press; later some eventually made it into Life. Still more were undoubtedly published as “Caro”s.

Taro spared her viewers little. Along with shots of troops—in training, at rest, in action—were shots of the casualties of war, including civilians. As a body of work, they serve as a record of the action, the camaraderie, the boredom, and the brutality of war. Overall, they show us, as Susan Sontag observes ” This what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.”  (Regarding the Pain of Others, p.8)

Taro, born Gerta Pohorylle, was raised  Stuttgart and Leipzig.  She met photographer André Friedmann (born Endre Ernő Friedmann), a Hungarian photographer, in 1935 on the French island of Sainte Marguerite. Sometime in the spring of 1936 collaboratively they invented the American-sounding (i.e. Frank Capra) photographer Robert Capa (also “shark” in Hungarian), endowing the character with ability and prior credentials. The Garbo-Gerda Taro was also born.

Alas, Taro’s career was all-too brief.  In July 1937 she traveled with another photographer to a battle site located between Villanueva de la Cañada and Brunete, near Segovia. (The battle was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.)  There, on the 25th, one day before her return to Paris, she found herself in the midst of a panicked retreat and jumped on the sideboard of a moving car to get away. It was hit by a Loyalist tank.  Taro died early the next morning in a field hospital. She was just days shy of her 27th birthday.

One hopes the Mexican suitcase will shed new light on the scope and scale of Taro’s work. One wishes that it will widely re-establish her rightful legacy in the pantheon of war photographers.

Wider Connections

Irme Schaber, Taro’s biographer  (Schaber’s portion begins at 3:20)

Trish Ziff—“The Mexican Suitcase”

Randy Kennedy—“The Capa Cache”

Gerda Taro: The Blonde of Brunete

Taro photographs in the suitcase

NY Times Taro slideshow

At Five in the Afternoon: Robert Motherwell Meets Federico García Lorca

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on canvas, 3 x 4 feet.

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. My pictures have layers of mistakes buried in them—an X-ray would disclose crimes—layers of consciousness, of willing. They are a succession of humiliations resulting from the realization that only in a state of quickened subjectivity—a freedom from conscious notions, and with what I always suppose to be secondary or accidental colors and shapes—do I find the unknown, which nevertheless I recognize when I come upon it, for which I am always searching. 

The absolute which lies in the background of all my activities of relating seems to retreat as I get on its track; yet the relative cannot exist without some point of support. However, the closer one gets to the absolute, the more mercilessly all the weaknesses of my work are revealed. 

For me the medium of oil painting resists, more strongly than others, content cut off from external relations. It continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction. I attribute my increasing devotion to oil, lately as against the constructionalism of collage, to a greater involvement in the human world. A shift in one’s human situation entails a shift in one’s technique and subject-matter.

—Robert Motherwell, “Statement,” Motherwell exhibition catalogue at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1947. 

After receiving his BA degree from Stanford University (1937), Robert Motherwell continued his studies at Harvard, completing one year of a the Ph.D program there. Motherwell dropped out, but in 1940 decided to continue his studies at Columbia University under the tutelage of celebrated art history professor Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro, recognizing Motherwell’s real desire to be a painter, introduced him to emigré painter and writer Kurt Seligmann, who was deeply versed in the tenets of Surrealism. It turned out to be Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta who most actively engaged Motherwell’s intellect, pushing him off on a journey to uncover his own original creative principle. 

A major turning point for Motherwell came in the summer of 1941, which he spent with Matta in Mexico. Matta introduced him to “automatism” (i.e. free association), and this set the painter to a technique he called “artful scribbling.  It became the starting point for all of his future work. Motherwell was intensely intellectual, and the process of accessing spontaneity was a perfect foil to his to impulse to reason. This device tapped into deep subconscious roots; for Motherwell it provided the means of getting to the innermost, or pre-conscious, self from which true creativity sprung.  Motherwell grabbed tightly a hold of the notion that pictures would, to paraphrase Miró, assert themselves under his brush. Through this overarching principle, he succeeded in brilliantly connecting in an unbroken line action painting (i.e.  The New York School) to Surrrealism. 

Perhaps Matta’s even more profound contribution to Motherwell’s development was his enthusiasm for the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The aura of fatality is overwhelming in García Lorca’s 1934 poem “The Goring and the Death.” He repeats the line “at five in the afternoon” 28 times in 52 lines, forecasting the bullfighter’s death with each knell of the repeat. The poem is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and an eerie foreshadowing of García Lorca’s own tragic death two years later at the hands of the Franco’s regime.  

At five in the afternoon 
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basketful of lime in readiness
at five in the afternoon.
Beyond that, death and death alone
at five in the afternoon. 

Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1949) was a prelude to his artistic tour de force, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, which eventually came to include some 200 paintings.  Together they are a visual lament for the poet, his bullfighter, and the original Republic of Spain. 

Wider Connections

PBS  “American Masters” on Motherwell

SF MOMA’s Motherwell collection

Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints

Selected Poems of Frederico García Lorca

Roberto Matta images

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